It was – apparently – a close call. But on the very day of the opening of the important NATO summit in Madrid there was to the relief of many a last-minute agreement between one member country, Turkey, and two Nordic membership applicants, Sweden and Finland, under the active oversight of NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, an agreed “memorandum” sufficient for Turkish president Erdogan to greenlight the two Nordics’ acceptance by the full summit as would-be invitees for future membership of the alliance.

Seemingly unbridgeable differences

It had seemed for weeks as if compromise between far-reaching Turkish demands, politically locked and blocked in Turkish politics by the president’s open and personal commitments to these demands, and the clear limitations in the domestic politics of the Nordics to what concessions to these demands were politically possible and defensible. On both sides of the negotiating divide core security and value issues were at stake, given high differences in definitions of democracy, human rights, rule of law – and terrorism.

Normally, agreeing to disagree would be a useful formula. But in this particular case not much was after all normal.

On the one hand there were Sweden and Finland having painstakingly arrived at their security policy conclusion that Russia’s aggression in and towards Ukraine more or less compelled them to deviate radically from the long tradition of neutrality/military non-alignment and to seek membership in NATO. In so doing they trusted that the broader NATO collectivity would in the prevailing circumstances wholeheartedly welcome such an enlargement step- So the Nordics found themselves in an unusual demandeur position once it become clear that there was a Turkish obstacle to be overcome, and quickly, in view of the approaching Madrid summit.

On the other side there was Turkey, or nowadays Turqiye, whose leader surprised analysts in Turkey and elsewhere by seizing this opportunity of Nordic vulnerability and NATO need to formulate demanding conditions in the sensitive areas of arms exports and definitions of terrorism, demands that targeted a much broader circle of NATO countries, including the US, but that hit and hurt the Nordic countries in their moment of vulnerability – in spite of the broad support rendered by all remaining 29 member states.

And then, thirdly, there was the question of time and the importance for NATO not to allow the summit to be seen – notably by the Kremlin and Putin – as a manifestation of weakness on one essential parameter of the summit’s planned outcome, the alliance’s enlargement with two militarily and politically capable new members.

Therefore compromise, the necessary and sufficient condition

So there had to be compromise with spoiler-capable Turkey. Seemingly insurmountable differences and difficulties had to be overcome, such that Turkey’s leader could declare victory and withdraw objections and the Nordics could claim that the necessary concessions made were defensible, politically and morally. Here there was also the factor of the US, long abstaining from concrete involvement in order to avoid that its issues with Turkey would be drawn into the specifics of the Turkish-Nordic negotiations, but clearly nonetheless involved on the spot in Madrid, with Biden offering a bilateral session and photo opportunity with Erdogan and hinting at possibilities to respond favorably to Turkish requests for US deliveries of F16 planes and spare parts. So clearly, for all the US denials, there was after all some, even crucial, last-minute US involvement in achieving the final compromise, leading to the summit officially welcoming Sweden and Finland as forthcoming members – after final ratification by all member states’ parliaments, including Turkey’s.

So now, based on the ensuing NAC decision the week after the Madrid summit to designate Sweden and Finland “invitees” giving them essentially unlimited access to NATO meetings henceforth, the process of preparation and adaptation has been initiated.

Ratification – a remaining Turkish Damocles sword

But there is still a Turkish Damocles’ sword hanging over the two Nordics – and NATO. For even before leaving Madrid president Erdogan again upped the ante by declaring that unless the “invitees” proved ready and able to fulfil and implement the memorandum to the letter (see below on constructive ambiguities), his government – soon facing the challenges of new elections – would not even forward the text to the Turkish parliament for ratification, adding even much higher numbers of terror suspects that Turkey demanded to be extradited, essentially from Sweden.

So there we are now, with a joint memorandum of understanding signed by the three at foreign minister level, a text filled with classical cases of diplomatic compromise, or strategic ambiguities, immediately displaying differences of interpretation, and with one side threatening that unless the other side proves willing and able to implement it the way Turkey claims is the correct way forward in terms of concrete implementation there will be no Turkish ratification, and hence no NATO membership for Sweden and Finland. For now. Serious uncertainties pertain to what the context of Turkish politics will be in the autumn, when the Turkish parliament has re-assembled, less than a year ahead of elections.

After president Erdogan surprised his own MFA and the world with his conditional objections to Sweden, especially Sweden, and Finland as new NATO members and after some initial shadow-boxing sessions between the three in Ankara and Brussels, the Turkish side formulated a 9-point list of concrete demands in the areas of arms embargo and anti-terrorism struggle, a list that was then clearly reflected in the finally agreed “Trilateral Memorandum”. It can be noted that it says “Memorandum”, not the usual rubric “Memorandum of Understanding” (nor “Memorandum of misunderstanding”, sic!). Just “Memorandum”, a trilateral one between the three countries, whatever the role of NATO and the US. A text displaying the noble art of constructive ambiguity, a compromise – sufficient to solve the immediate needs of the present – between a Turkish maximalist offensive and a Stoltenberg-facilitated Nordic damage-limiting defensive.

The “trilateral memorandum” and the art of strategic ambiguity

Reading the text as it stands, and based on media comments afterwards, one can conclude that Erdogan’s aim was to seize opportunity, using the moment of Western and Nordic vulnerability, to seek to enforce enhanced Western/Nordic understanding for, even support for, Ankara’s threat perceptions and definitions of terrorism, concretely meaning more determined struggle against the PKK:s presence in the Nordic countries, extradition of Turkey-defined terrorist suspects, recognition of PYD/YPG in northern Syria as well as the Gulen movement as terrorist organization and the lifting of any and all embargoes against arms sales to Turkey, as linked to earlier Turkish military incursions into northern Syria and now clearly linked to stated intentions by Erdogan to embark on a new incursion into the area. The Nordic aim, sponsored by Stoltenberg, was apparently to try to respond controversially favorably to these (impossible) demands, and thus display serious understanding for Turkey’s “legitimate” security concern, sufficiently for Tukey and its president to abandon its objections, while still insisting on staying within the legal and constitutional provisions of their countries.

So given these ramifications, what can Turkey now claim to have victoriously gained in terms of commitments on the part of the Nordic countries, as a foot in the door of the wider West? After all, the Erdogan regime did claim afterwards to have gotten all it had asked for. Again, the memorandum is interesting reading as a case of diplomatic compromise and strategic ambiguity.

Point 4 in the memorandum provides a condensed version of the compromise. Here Sweden and Finland, to the surprise of many, acknowledge deep understanding for the Turkish narrative regarding terror threats. It says that the two Nordic countries “extend their full support to Turkiye against threats to its national security. To that effect, Finland and Sweden will not provide support to YPG/PYD, and the organization described as FETÖ in Turkiye…Finland and Sweden unambiguously condemn all terrorist organizations perpetrating attacks against Turkiye, and express their deepest solidarity with Turkiye and the families of the victims”.

All the way to the line, but not across it

It can be seen that the compromise here is for the Nordics to go all the way to, but not cross the (red) line of, accepting Turkey’s designation of the YPG and PYD and the Gulen movement as terrorist organizations. Even with the contextual link provided by the phrase “To that effect” (as connected to the preceding line extending full support), the operative part simply states that the Nordics “do not provide support” for these entities. But even that, according to media information, required ad hoc/instant clearance by Washington. After all, the US and the broad-based anti ISIS coalition does cooperate in Syria with the YPG in the still continued struggle against ISIS. Remarkably, incidentally, there is in the memorandum no mention of ISIS. And the leader of the Gulen movement still resides in the US. It would, therefore, have been politically unthinkable, especially in the context of NATO and NATO enlargement, for Sweden and Finland to concede a terror designation on these organizations, no matter how hard the Turkish side insisted on this, using the Nordics as vehicle for this. But the price for resisting Turkey on this key issue was a language of far-reaching understanding of the Turkish narrative. Thus: constructive ambiguity, with great difficulties of implementation.

The next paragraph (5) focusses on the PKK but connects with the preceding paragraph by talking about Finland’s and Sweden’s commitment “to prevent activities of the PKK and all other terrorist organization and their extensions, as well as activities by individuals in affiliated and inspired groups or networks linked to these terrorist organizations. Turkiye, Finland and Sweden have agreed to step up cooperation to prevent the activities of these terrorist groups. Finland and Sweden reject the goals of these terrorist organizations”. Again no mention of ISIS, but the text dangerously connects the words “Finland and Sweden commit to prevent activities” to a broad range of presumed terrorist organizations whether or not linked to PKK proper. Again a rather adventurous step in legitimizing the overall Turkish narrative – but without sensitive implementation specifics.

On arms embargo, finally, the memorandum compromise consists of a normative statement of quasi-fact: “Turkiye, Finland and Sweden confirm that now there are no national arms embargoes in place between them”, with the rest of the paragraph explaining the emphasis on the word “now” by mentioning emerging changes in the Nordics’ arms export regulations to be brought to NATO solidarity standards – as if Sweden and Finland had been the only Western countries to have reacted to Turkey’s Syria incursions and other actions with sanction/embargoes. Again creative diplomacy to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable – albeit, again, a big challenge of implementation, especially if Turkey were again, as notified, to embark on a Syria incursion, against the advice of Russia, Iran and the US.

The Memorandum is concluded by a para 8 with seven “concrete points” essentially concerning implementation of preceding paragraphs:

  • Establishing “a joint structured dialogue and cooperation mechanism at all levels of government, including between law enforcement and intelligence agencies, (as well as) experts from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior and Justice…”
  • “Finland and Sweden will address Turkey’s pending deportation or extradition requests of terror suspects expeditiously and thoroughly, taking into account information, evidence and intelligence provided by Turkey…(but) in accordance with the European Convention on Extradition”, the latter an important safeguard. And – importantly – no mention of names of requested deportees.
  • And then some final points on ways and means for Sweden and Finland to commit to further sharpening their struggle against the PKK “and all other terrorist organizations and their extensions, as well affiliates or inspired groups or networks as outlined in paragraph 5”, and on NATO-adaptation of regulations of arms exports.

Strategic ambiguity and a problematic process of (interpretation and) implementation

So this was the compromise, the display of the noble art of strategic ambiguity, the outcome of a rather protracted struggle between a Turkish diplomatic offensive and a Nordic diplomatic defensive, seeking a solution for the greater good of the NATO acceptance while seeking to limit damage and political costs. It saved the day for NATO and for the Nordics’ accession step – much to the relief of Stoltenberg and all the 29 supportive nations, but there is now the cost side in the process of implementation (of the memorandum) that needs to be assessed, especially since Erdogan did comment on the implementation demands and the ratification uncertainty the way he did, in rather ominous words. Sweden and Finland can claim that with the compromise solutions found there is nothing in the memorandum that commits, or binds, these countries to do anything that is not pre-planned in the legal reform-making process or that would be a diplomatic embarrassment in a NATO enlargement context.

And/but Turkey can claim – and can definitely be expected to claim, extensively using the “Mechanism” agreed upon, and threatening non-ratification – all but complete Nordic acknowledgement of the basic Turkish security narrative, even if key implementation specifics are missing in the text as a result of ultimate bargaining, with the NATO and US leaderships presumably being part of a bigger parcel, with unknown specifics.

So the process of implementation of this extraordinary memorandum can hardly avoid being trying for the Nordic governments (with Turkish – and Swedish – elections looming), and very interesting for us spectators.

From the point of view of Swedish values and traditions, defining the politically and morally defensible as the problematic process of implementation is entered into, it helps to note that there is consensus between government and (pro-NATO) opposition on the price being worth the costs, and that we share responsibility with a Finland that is politically less affected by the concessions which had to made for the greater good of NATO accession.

The author is ambassador, holds a PhD and is a fellow of RSAWS.
This article is earlier published in Consilio International.